A Sensory Education from Monell.
Warning: this article may contain terminology that you might not even try to pronounce in your own head.
When we describe beers consumed, we might use words such as, “bittersweet chocolate, chicory or grapefruit.” What we’re really doing is describing how the beer smells. The majority of what you think you are tasting, is actually what you are smelling. Combine the taste, the aroma, and the mouthfeel and you’re now talking about the overall flavor of the substance.
I learned this only last year when I attended a Monell Sensory lecture. In the midst of Philly Beer Week 2010, I took a break from my beer binge for a couple of hours to attend a class on taste and sensory education taught by Monell’s Marcia Pelchat. Monell is the world’s only independent, non-profit scientific institute dedicated to basic research on taste and smell, and they’re right here in University City. They do mostly research, but in the last year have been doing a bit more educational outreach-most recently teaming up with Yards Brewing Co., during Philadelphia Science Week.
The Center explores craving, obesity, picky eating, olfaction, and topics such as, “Why chocolate gives you the same feeling like you are in love.” And why is that? It contains Cannabinoids which are also found in marijuana. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, a naturally occurring body chemical that has amphetamine-like effects, but you would have to eat 26 lbs. to get the same psychoactive effect. What surprisingly gets you there three times quicker? Salami.
In The Physiology of Taste (1825), Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin writes, “When the sense of smell is cut off, taste is paralyzed.” We conducted an interesting experiment with Monell supporting his statement. We pinched our sniffers and popped a Jelly Belly in our mouth. Chew, chew, chew. Zip, zero, zilch. There was no flavor. I released my nose and I was pounded with a distinct banana flavor instantly.In simplest terms, the majority of food and beverage flavor is perceived by your nose. There are olfactory sensors known as the retronasal. They reside in the back of the mouth and in the channel that connects the mouth to the nose.
The next exercise we did focused on adaptation. Four sugar solutions were served to us and we had to rate how sweet they were on a scale of one to ten. The first – a weak sugar solution, the second was one much sweeter, the third was sweeter yet. The fourth was the same as the second but tasted more like water since we had already adapted. Every sip you take changes the way you perceive the next sip just as with every bite you take changes the way you perceive the next bite.
For the last experiment, we took a bite of bitter radicchio. Pelchat instructed us to sprinkle a little Kosher salt on it and take another bite. The salt reduced the bitterness. Taking a sip of Stoudts’ Scarlet Lady, reduced the bitterness further. If you are eating something bitter, it will make the beer you are drinking taste sweeter. This will pleasantly surprise those at beer dinners who don’t care for bitter beer.
It’s been said that you are allowed to spit wine out during a tasting, but beer must be swallowed. It is not until the instant of swallowing, when the mouthful passes under his or her nasal channel, that the full aroma is revealed to a person. If you want to learn more about sensory exploration, Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher, is one of the best books on our favorite potable. I often describe it as a “Beer 303” as opposed to a “101.” It delves into the history of the pint but also explores off-flavors and sensory evaluation. Author Randy Mosher shares that our tongue has 10,000 taste buds. What is actually visible is the papillae which contain the “buds.” The “tongue map,” illustrating where we get sweet, salty, sour and bitter has been updated. We now know most of the tongue is actually sensitive to all flavors.
Women, Pelchat says, are genetically predisposed to prefer sweeter tastes, with greater sensitivity to bitterness. Women have tightly packed papillae. It is possibly related to hormones and subject to change during menopause. During their reproductive age-women have a better sense of smell than men. The closer your papillae, the better taster you are. All tongues are not equally endowed with taste buds- some, known as “supertasters” may possess even three times as many of them as others. I asked Pelchat why people often lean toward wine with food. She believes that women especially prefer lower levels of carbonation. They feel beer has too many calories and leaves you feeling too full. She also acknowledges the simple concept of tradition- the fact that France and Italy have been celebrating viticulture for centuries. Carbonation can strongly affect the way pairings are assembled. Carbonation gives beer a refreshing lift, concentrates bitterness and acidity, and cleanses the palate.
Garrett Oliver makes a great point in The Brewmaster’s Table, “It is little wonder that in the wine world, only champagne can claim to be as versatile as pilsner or weissbier.” Well-hopped beers have the ability to cut through heavy sauces, fats, and oils, leaving the palate cleansed and refreshed rather than stunned. Oliver recommends serving lighter-flavored beers before those with bigger flavors, and drier before sweeter ones. Something heavy will make whatever is served after it seem lighter.
If you pick up He Said Beer, She Said Wine, written by Dogfish Head’s head honcho, Sam Calagione with Philadelphia sommelier Marnie Old, you’ll enjoy the two playing ping-pong with food and beverage pairings. It’s a light, entertaining read that serves up plenty of banter and beer education. One of my favorite ways to taste beer is to pair it with food. It’s amazing how beer can bring out the best in a bite and vice versa. I am always thinking about what I want to drink with a dish, even non-alcoholic bevies. Why do scrambled eggs mandate orange juice? And why is it that the only time I drink Coke is while larding up with Chinese food, pizza, or burgers?
During Philly Beer Week, SPTR’s Scott Schroeder attempted to pair Firestone Walker’s Union Jack IPA with a melon gazpacho. Schroeder says it was a failure. By the end of the week he was in the land of redemption, but oddly enough via the same ticket of ingredients. He paired the Founders All Day IPA with a lobster melon ceviche and met with success. He prefers pairing food with beer rather than wine. “Beer is so much more fragrant than wine,” says Schroeder. Instead of cooling the burn, you can kick it even higher. Pete Danford, Sales Manager for Victory Brewing Co. loves Indian or Thai food with an IPA, preferably HopDevil, of course. “The heat from curry is accentuated by adding HopDevil’s spiciness to the meal. Most Indian restaurants I go to don’t carry IPAs, so when I find one that sells Hop- Devil, I stick with it. The two flavors match up perfectly without going over the top with spice or heat; a perfect marriage.”
Both Jeff Miller of TJ’s Drinkery in Paoli and Dan Bethard at the helm of the Iron Hill West Chester kitchen, agree that they would rather present a contrast in a pairing than a complement. “I don’t know if people appreciate it as much,” says Bethard. His favorite pairing? “People want too many components on a plate resulting in a strike out of an experience, but cheese and beer are so simple. One plus one equals two. Barleywine and stilton come together on the taste buds and hit a homerun.”
The Monday afternoon a year ago when Pelchat allowed us to “play with our food” is still quite vivid in my mind. It was two hours of exercising our palates, exploring taste, discovering complements and contrasts. Monell doesn’t do this often, but if interested you can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also encourage you to purchase a Siebel Institute Sensory Kit ($180). It will provide you with a professional understanding of flavor & aroma characteristics attributable to the full range of beer styles.